The NFL’s Wild Card weekend is upon us, and the football gods have gifted us with a six-game slate over three days.
Wild Card weekend serves as a necessary prerequisite to what many consider to be the best weekend of football all year, the Divisional Round, which should feature four games between the top eight teams in the league.
However, on occasion, a spoiler or two emerges on Wild Card weekend. That’s where this post comes in. Let’s rank the three most likely upset picks of Wild Card weekend:
I created this section because, as I evaluated this slate for the top three upset picks, I found it interesting that I’m deciding away from the three matchups featuring division matchups. The two games I immediately took off my list were Miami Dolphins-Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens-Cincinnati Bengals.
Why? The uncertainty surrounding the Dolphins’ and Ravens’ quarterback situations. If both underdogs were to have a reasonable chance to derail what at this point seems like destiny — a Bills-Bengals rematch of the discontinued Monday Night Football game of the year — they would need their starting quarterback.
In the Dolphins’ case, the team has already ruled out starter Tua Tagovailoa as he remains in concussion protocol, and with Teddy Bridgewater dealing with an injury of his own, leaving 247th overall pick Skylar Thompson as the likely quarterback. Maybe I can buy the Dolphins being able to cover the 13-point spread on DraftKings Sportsbook, but an outright upset seems impossible.
It has yet to be written, but the Ravens’ situation with Lamar Jackson is also up in the air. Jackson has not played since early December, and he reportedly faces an “uphill battle” to play this weekend. I like Tyler Huntley and believe him to be one of the better backups in the league. Huntley isn’t beating the Bengals — winners of their last eight straight completed games and 10 of their last 11 — in Cincinnati.
Alas, the division matchup that intrigues me the most is out of the wild, wild NFC West — as the Seattle Seahawks visit the San Francisco 49ers. The Seahawks will actually have their starting quarterback — a Pro Bowler in Geno Smith — but there is a case to be made that the San Francisco 49ers enter the playoffs as the hottest team in the league. They offer the league’s best defense, and Mr. Irrelevant, Brock Purdy, plays at times as a seasoned veteran. The 49ers have all the weapons, and the Seahawks offer a bottom-third defense (DVOA). The odds are stacked up against the Seahawks, but considering all three possibilities, they still seem like the most likely to pull off the upset.
All that said, these three games feature teams playing for the third time this year, and I believe there’s an upset somewhere. But given the circumstances, I’m finding it rather difficult to pinpoint it.
3. The Giants over the Vikings
Would this even feel like an upset?
Of the six Wild Card games this weekend, I’m guessing the New York Giants will be the hot pick on all the national talking-head programs on the likes of ESPN, Fox Sports and NFL Network.
Kirk Cousins is 1-3 in the playoffs, and there have forever been questions about his ability to win in the big game (at least this one isn’t in primetime). The Vikings offer the third-worst scoring defense in the league and thus the worst scoring defense in the playoff field, and though they have 13 wins, 11 of those have been by a one-score margin.
That includes a Week 16 home game against these same Giants in which a spoiled 10-0 lead turned into the Vikings needing a 61-yard field goal as time expired for a 27-24 victory. Wide receiver Justin Jefferson had 12 catches for 133 yards and a touchdown in the game, yet the Vikings still came close to losing, in part thanks to the rushing attacks of running back Saquon Barkley (84 yards) and quarterback Daniel Jones (34 yards).
Minnesota has had weeks in which it just didn’t show up (Week 11 against Dallas and Week 17 against Green Bay), though it has largely been more of a consistent team than New York and offers a better scoring offense at 24.9 points per game.
I still like Minnesota — but this has all the makings of a game that could go either way.
2. The Buccaneers over the Cowboys
Tom Brady’s team against the Dallas Cowboys in a playoff game? The league is in love. And they should be, with the ratings this game will draw on Monday night.
I’m going to use this platform for a quick complaint on behalf of the Cowboys (which has always admittedly been my least favorite club). While I do believe the league is better off with division winners locking up an automatic playoff bid, it should not mean an automatic home game. Allow every division winner to make the dance, but re-seed the field based upon record alone — that way, a 12-win team never has to visit a sub-.500 team with so much on the line.
Moving on from the Ted Talk you never asked for, I think the Buccaneers realize that 2022 is their very-much-less-accomplished version of “The Last Dance.” Any day now will be Brady’s last as a Buccaneer, and with that being the case, there will be a great efflux of talent (we saw this beginning to happen last year with Brady’s retirement tease).
What’s left is one last chance for glory, and I like the Buccaneers here — and not only because of how the Cowboys limped into the postseason with an embarrassing 26-6 loss to the Washington Commanders (yes, I realize they had very little to play for after scoreboard watching).
Call it ordinary, but I love me some Brady in this spot, in his 21st career playoff game, going against Dak Prescott in his fifth. Bucs tackle Tristan Wirfs going up against Micah Parsons will be the battle to watch, as we have seen causing Brady discomfort in the playoffs is how to win the game. But that’s the obvious that Brady knows, and we’ll see him get rid of the ball quickly into the hands of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and an emerging Rachaad White — the Bucs only trail the Kansas City Chiefs in passing yards per game.
The recipe for a surprise is simple: Grab an early lead at home and let Playoff Lenny cook. Oh yeah — and just stop Prescott, CeeDee Lamb and Tony Pollard. Should be a cinch.
1. The Jaguars over the Chargers
In a way, I feel guilty ranking the Jaguars winning at home as the most likely upset — because, duh. The team with the lowest point spread, according to our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook, is, of course, the most likely upset.
Watching the Jaguars’ pseudo-playoff win against the Tennessee Titans last week, I think the home-field environment of TIAA Bank Field in Duval County is rather underrated, and I think in a game that could really go either way, it could come into play.
The basis for my personal strong feelings on the Jaguars is the back-half play of quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who will be making a simultaneous playoff debut with quarterback Justin Herbert. Since Week 9, Lawrence had the league’s best passing score, according to Next Gen Stats, and he is quick to get rid of the ball, which makes me feel better about potential season-ender Joey Bosa.
Many times, this tournament is about which team comes in hot, and I think the Jaguars beginning the season 4-8 only to storm into the postseason off of five straight victories qualifies.
And while I like the Jaguars to pull it out at home, Herbert carried his injury-riddled team all year and is a worthy adversary. Forget the labels of Chargers and Jaguars if you can. This is the best quarterback matchup of the weekend.